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NATIONAL LETHARGY OP-ED

Steve Biko’s oft-quoted ‘black man, you are on your own’ is more relevant than ever

Steve Biko’s oft-quoted ‘black man, you are on your own’ is more relevant than ever
Thousands of South Africans wait in line outside the Gugulethu Social Services office in Cape Town to register for the Social Relief of Distress grant on 28 January 2009. (Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma)

What the country needs urgently is a national project whose aim will be to instil in black people a strong, positive mindset that will give them the confidence to stand on their own instead of waiting for handouts from Pretoria or an employer.

With each election, the government reminds us of its “track record” in the eradication of poverty and economic exclusion. Currently, it gives grants to 45% of the South African population, totalling 27.3 million individuals, most of whom are black, and at a total cost of R232-billion.

Of the 27.3 million beneficiaries, 18.825 million receive social grants and about 8.5 million are recipients of the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant. And there is more to come. There are currently consultations regarding the provision of a permanent basic income grant, and this is likely to be provided in the not-too-distant future.

With millions of South Africans reliant on government assistance, there can be no doubt that a dependency culture is now the norm. Because of the expectation that the government should solve individual and collective problems, devastating inertia has gripped black communities. Gone are the days when people took pride in self-help and self-reliance.

The poor are now wont to describe themselves as the “poorest of the poor”, for they know that such self-labelling is likely to bring about handouts. So, where does this crippling dependency mindset come from? And how was it sowed in the black psyche?

We must start with history. The history of colonialism in South Africa is a story of conquest, dispossession and loss of African independence. With the loss of land and traditional economic patterns, blacks were forced to work for white people – on farms and mines and later in factories. Deprived of land and economic independence, finding a job became the chief aim of all able-bodied Africans.

For the more ambitious families, the message inculcated in young people was “go to school, get a good education and get a good job”. So, colonial dispossession and the destruction of African people’s independence can be seen as the provenance of a dependency mentality among black people.

When Steve Biko and fellow activists came up in the 1970s with the slogan “black man, you are on your own”, black dependence on white liberal leadership was extreme following the banning of liberation movements in the 1960s. Through this slogan, Biko and fellow comrades sought to instil in blacks a spirit of self-reliance – a necessary condition for self-emancipation and self-direction of national destiny.

Biko and his comrades were acutely aware of the debilitating effects of black people’s lack of self-confidence, and so the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) stressed the “psychological” importance of black pride and self-reliance over and above the “political” emancipation of blacks from the structural hardships imposed by apartheid.

There are now new players on the political landscape whose utterances further entrench a dependency mentality among blacks.

For example, the BCM promoted community improvement projects in black areas by developing gardens and implementing clean-up campaigns. This was a proud moment in the history of black South Africa, seeing black people take control of their lives, their communities and their political future.

Biko and his comrades may not have been professional psychologists, but they were instinctively aware of the relationship between an ethos of self-help and national success. Biko’s powerful insight was that black oppression was both structural (external) and psychological (internal).

While political resistance was required to fight structural oppression, internally derived self-oppression required a radical transformation of the black psyche if true liberation was to be realised.

So the slogan “black man, you are on your own” was intended to foster a new spirit of black self-reliance. This message was both revolutionary and emancipatory because a self-reliant people, confident in their own agency, would be difficult to oppress and exploit. The only way to stop this message from spreading was to kill Biko, its chief proponent.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Black man, you are on your own: Squandering the legacy of Bantu Stephen Biko

So, where do we stand today in respect of an ethos of self-reliance that the BCM sought to instil? Sadly, self-reliance remains a distant dream. Getting a job in an economy still dominated by a white minority is still the norm.

Worse still, there are now new players on the political landscape whose utterances further entrench a dependency mentality among blacks. Eager to be popular and win votes, populist politicians continually tell the black masses that Pretoria will provide if they (black voters) vote for them.

The black mind has now developed a habit of inaction because the belief is that someone other than the self will provide solutions.

As in the colonial era, blacks are made to believe that someone other than themselves will give them a livelihood and solve all their problems.

With elections around the corner, campaigning has become a contest of extravagant promises.  The “Pretoria will provide” rhetoric has, as a consequence, taken agency away from black people. The message now imprinted on the brain is that all a black person needs to do is vote and all problems will go away.

Anyone exposed to the same propaganda is likely to end up believing it because they hear no countervailing messages. It is said that the subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is not, between truth and untruth. When the subconscious mind absorbs what is imprinted on it by ceaseless propaganda, it ends up accepting these lies as fact.

And so conditioned by a neverending rhetoric of what the government will do, the black mind has now developed a habit of inaction because the belief is that someone other than the self will provide solutions. In this state of lassitude, a spirit of self-help, which is a much-needed impetus to socioeconomic development, has become a casualty.

Politicians need to recognise that national rejuvenation starts with reconditioning of mindsets, not the dispensing of handouts.

There is strong evidence that black people’s loss of resourcefulness is one of the primary reasons for South Africa’s economic stagnation. There is no nation in history that has risen to great heights of economic and cultural achievement with a namby-pamby population, shiftless and without drive, but always ready to tell you what it is owed.

Our populist politicians – masters of grandiose promises – are responsible for the current state of national lethargy. Instead of presenting the government as the creator of an enabling environment that is meant to foster self-help, our populist politicians suggest that the government is a paternalistic provider of all solutions. As a result, the dignity and ingenuity that come with self-help are denied our people.

What the country needs urgently is a national project whose aim will be to instil in black people a strong, positive mindset that will give them the confidence to stand on their own instead of waiting for handouts from Pretoria or an employer.

As Nelson Mandela recognised many years ago, South Africa needs, primarily, a “Reconstruction and Development Programme of the soul”, for it is abundant in inner resources that make material resources possible.

Without the vigour and ingenuity of an enterprising nation, there can be no wealth and material resources to distribute. It is for this reason that politicians need to recognise that national rejuvenation starts with reconditioning of mindsets, not the dispensing of handouts.

The histories of successful nations show that a strong mindset is crucial for success in virtually all fields of human endeavour. Mindset is nothing but a set of conscious and subconscious beliefs that influence the way individuals make sense of the world. Mindset influences the thinking and behaviour of individuals in given situations. Mindset may also be seen as a mental state that encompasses certain values and dispositions that make individuals act in particular ways.

Because it affects how individuals see their place in the world, mindset invariably shapes decisions and choices individuals make. Seen from this perspective, the Biblical statement “as a man thinks, so is he”, sums up what mindset is all about: you are what you think

Today’s debilitating dependency mentality is an example of what is called a limiting mindset in the psychology of achievement, and is characterised by lack of accountability.

The accountability principle teaches that as an individual you are in control of your destiny, that you cannot succeed if you see yourself as a victim of circumstances. An accountable person knows that the buck stops with them.

Blaming external factors rather than accepting personal responsibility is seen by those with an accountable mindset as a typical sign of weak-mindedness. An accountable mindset teaches that you must own your mistakes, make amends where necessary and move forward with the wisdom of hindsight.

Accountable people have what psychologists call an “inner locus of control” because they know that they make the decisions that determine the direction of their lives. The place of control is always within.

Individuals who believe that external circumstances control them or prevent them from achieving what they want, have an “external locus of control”. People with an external locus of control tend to be low achievers as they find it difficult to act without someone’s encouragement and motivation.

On the other hand, people with an internal locus of control tend to be high performers as they are more willing to challenge themselves and are self-directed. The work of researchers in cognitive psychology suggests that a sense of inner control is essential for personal achievement and, by extension, national success.

Populist politicians are reluctant to tell the masses that a contemporaneous enemy to our social progress is largely internal.

So, to take control of one’s life, you must first take control of your mind, and you have to banish from it any thoughts about scapegoating in favour of thoughts about being in control. If you are not happy with your current situation, it is up to you to make different choices because you are always free to choose.

Individuals with an accountable mindset know that cause leads to effect. It was the ancient philosopher Aristotle who came up with the principle of causality. According to him, everything happens for a reason, whether we know the reason or not, because for every effect or result there is a specific cause: we live in a world governed by law, not random occurrences. Every cause or action has an effect of some kind, whether we can see it and whether we like it or not. This is the universal law of science.

The implication of the law of cause and effect is that success or failure is the direct result of specific causes or actions. In our social world, material conditions are the results and thoughts and choices are causes.

Mind always predominates over matter. In other words, you create your entire world by the way you think and the choices you make. As the Bible says, “whatsoever a man soweth, that also shall he reap”.

The fact that the world inside, rather than the world outside, creates the conditions of life is a game-changing and emancipatory discovery, and has shaped humanity’s great religions and philosophies. Without this discovery, humanity would still be in the Stone Age, looking for solutions in supernatural sources instead of the world within – and without it humanity would not have been blessed with the achievements and innovations of successful nations.

Sadly, the above insight is lost to politicians in post-apartheid South Africa. Populist politicians are reluctant to tell the masses that a contemporaneous enemy to our social progress is largely internal because to redirect attention away from the usual external enemies – the legacy of apartheid and an exploitative capitalist system – to an honest, self-reflexive confrontation of a debilitating mindset is a dangerous political endeavour which may lead to loss of votes, for those who vote have always been told that the primary enemy is “out there”.

An honest engagement of the self and limiting beliefs can only be promoted by wise and far-sighted political leaders – the philosopher-kings, as Plato described them centuries ago, not short-sighted politicians whose main concern is winning votes.

All is not lost, however, for individuals and communities can still reclaim their agency. One of the best interventions in this regard would be the teaching of entrepreneurship in our schools and universities. Because successful entrepreneurship requires a reorientation of mindset, with the individual entrepreneur located in the centre as the prime mover and shaker, individuals who undergo entrepreneurship training invariably come out with a new sense of agency.

By taking more and more black people through entrepreneurship training, we may begin to eradicate the current national inertia that undermines our socioeconomic development. DM

Professor Marcus Ramogale is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal (Acting) at Mangosuthu University of Technology. He writes in his personal capacity.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Agreed,now to get leaders to adress this and take the whole country forward,and build cohesion as 1 country united with a shared identity as south africans

  • Trenton Carr says:

    South African man, you are on your own.
    Unfortunately it’s everyone for themselves now.

    “There is strong evidence that black people’s loss of resourcefulness is one of the primary reasons for South Africa’s economic stagnation.”
    Cool, let’s see that evidence.
    After 30 years of one race getting preferencial treatment when it comes to developmental funds from our givernment you want some more?

    Givernment graft and givernment grants are the anc tickets this election.
    Good luck trying to break this culture of take.

    • Zakhele Nxumalo says:

      Nothing will change if we still have leaders that are selfish and greedy. Our education system does not promote entrepreneurship, we produce job seekers rather than job creators. We need to have innovative thinkers to change this narrative. We vote for what exactly? To keep shenanigans on highest positions so that their network will benefit, it’s a shame.

      • ST ST says:

        Agreed. If only government had created better education and job opportunities as well as supported industry and true entrepreneurs…

        We can start now…but motivating and getting people of benefits can be hard. Especially those who are older and have given up. A lot of people I know though actually get embarrassed by needing such help. They wish to contribute and earn respect of their community & children.

        • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

          It just shows what giving people resources can make them resourceful, the grants although helpful, it creates a dependent population.

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